MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Parliamentary elections in the Republic of Georgia have delivered a resounding defeat for its ruling party. Today, President Mikheil Saakashvili conceded and said the opposition has won the right to form a new government in the Black Sea nation.
NPR's Corey Flintoff reports that the result came as a shock to many in the government, which came to power in 2004, after pro-democracy revolution.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: In a televised address, Saakashvili said he respected the decision of the voters, after preliminary election results showed the opposition winning more than 50 percent of the vote.
MIKHEIL SAAKASHVILI: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: He said he would clear the way for the opposition Georgian Dream Party to form a new government, a move that would install opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili as prime minister.
SAAKASHVILI: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: But Saakashvili also made it clear that he intends to mount a strong opposition. He said Ivanishvili's views were unacceptable to him and extremely wrong.
For his part, Ivanishvili said the concession paves the way for a peaceful and orderly transition of power, but he also struck a combative note. He dismissed the government's reforms over the past eight years as a joke and said Saakashvili's ideology was based on lies.
The hostile tone of the two leaders doesn't bode well for cooperation as the two sides prepare for a transition of power.
CORY WELT: There's a lot of polarization. There's a lot of anger. There's still a danger of a desire for retribution overriding a desire to have sort of a normal, rough-and-tumble democratic politics. So we still need to wait and see how that evolves.
FLINTOFF: That's Cory Welt, an expert on the region at George Washington University, who said before the vote that he feared that disputed election results could trigger a potentially violent standoff between the two sides. Things could still get messy in the struggle between the two leaders.
Saakashvili's term as president doesn't end for another year, and under current law, he remains a powerful executive. Under a constitutional change that was recently approved, some of what are now presidential powers will be transferred to the prime minister, but that won't happen until Saakashvili's term is up.
Meanwhile, Welt says he's cautiously optimistic,
WELT: If this does get channeled into the political system properly, then we're going to be able to see some of the most vibrant debates on policy in the ex-Soviet Union we've been able to see.
FLINTOFF: Saakashvili's government has been strongly pro-Western, aiming to bring Georgia into NATO and the European Union. Ivanishvili has said that he'll maintain the government's pro-Western stance, but he'll also seek to restore normal relations with Georgia's powerful neighbor, Russia. That is, if the two leaders can find a way to get things done.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Washington.